On Tuesday night, the Colorado Rockies defeated the Atlanta Braves by a score of 5-1. The win was their 50th of the season, making them the last team in baseball to reach the 50-win plateau. Chad Bettis pitched well in his return from the disabled list and second baseman extraordinaire DJ LeMahieu went 3-for-4 with three RBI, upping his slash line to .314/.371/.406 on the season, good for a 99 wRC+ that is easily the best of his career. It has been a welcome sight after watching him struggle to a .278/.317/.366 slash line and 70 wRC+ across his first 1,200+ PA as a Rockie, but it also raises a few questions:
1. How legitimate is this?
2. Is LeMahieu someone the Rockies should be building around, or someone they should be trying to sell at his highest value?
To answer these questions, let's start off by taking a look at some things that suggest legitimate improvement. First off, he's walking more. After posting a walk rate of 5.3 percent in his first three seasons in Colorado, LeMahieu has upped that number to 8.2 percent in 2015. This is supported in his swing data as well, as he has reduced his chase rate from 34.2 percent in his first three years with the Rockies to 25.9 percent this season. Another point seemingly in LeMahieu's favor is that when he has swung, he almost never makes soft contact. Not only is his 9.5 percent soft contact rate a significant reduction from the 14.5 percent mark he put up in 2014, it's also good for fourth best out of 155 qualified hitters this season! However, there is certainly some question about whether this is a legitimate improvement in skill, or just (relatively) small sample size noise. Many players can have fluctuations of plus or minus five percent from season-to-season, so this may be something real and it may not.
In addition to that, LeMahieu has also improved as a base runner in 2015. After being just 29-for-48 (60.4 percent) in stolen base attempts and worth -2.3 runs on the bases overall from 2012-2014, he has been 18-for-21 (85.7 percent) in stolen base attempts and worth +3.0 runs on the bases in 2015. That appears to be significant and is definitely a good sign moving forward.
However, there are also some reasons to worry about LeMahieu going forward. He currently holds a .378 BABIP on the season, 36 points higher than his career mark of .342, 47 points higher than his .331 BABIP from 2012-2014, and the third highest number in baseball. It's certainly fun to watch, but the odds of his BABIP remaining as high as it is now over the long haul are pretty much zilch. That's not to say he can't be a high BABIP guy, but it won't be that high. Another troubling thing for DJ is his continued lack of power. His .092 ISO this season is only marginally higher than his .088 ISO over the rest of his career in a Rockies uniform and, even with the Coors Field boost, puts him just 137th out of 155 qualified hitters. That lack of power really limits his offensive upside going forward, even if he is able to maintain a high BABIP.
Another possible red flag has been the decline in LeMahieu's defense in 2015. Now, before I even get into this, it's important to note that I am in no way saying that LeMahieu hasn't been great defensively and that defensive statistics are best viewed in large sample sizes, so it's entirely possible that there's nothing to this. That being said, there has been a decline in his defensive statistics in 2015. After putting up 26 defensive runs saved -- an average of 13 per season -- and 10.6 UZR/150 in his first two seasons as a full-time starter, LeMahieu has just six defensive runs saved -- on pace for eight in a full season -- and 5.6 UZR/150 in 2015. Those are still great numbers, but they certainly aren't as great as he's been over the past few years. On one hand, like I said above, defensive statistics are best viewed in large sample sizes and this could mean nothing. On the other hand, defense typically peaks earlier than anything else, so DJ might just not be quite as great as he was the last two years. I don't know which it is, but it's certainly worth keeping an eye on as we move forward.
So, where does this leave us? As far as 2015 is concerned, LeMahieu comes in ninth out of 21 qualified second basemen in both fWAR and rWAR. When 2014 is added in to give us a larger sample size, he drops to 13th out of 17 in rWAR and 15th out of 17 in fWAR. What that tells me is that, while not necessarily a problem right now, he's certainly not a cornerstone the team should be building around. With both Cristhian Adames and Trevor Story appearing to be nearly MLB-ready and Forrest Wall developing nicely (though still a few years away), I place LeMahieu in the bucket of players the Rockies should be taking offers on along with guys like Nick Hundley and Charlie Blackmon, but not quite in the must-move bucket that Jose Reyes has made a home in.